County exploring boat-launch fees at South End parks

Cash-strapped Island County is considering collecting boat-launch fees at the eight facilities it owns, including three on the South End.

“We’re in the early discussion phase,” said Steve Marx, assistant director of Public Works and parks director. “Once everybody is onboard, and we still think it’s a good idea, we’ll bring it to the county commissioners.”

“A lot depends on what the public is willing to do,” he added.

The current proposal is a launch fee of $5 for county residents and $10 for non-residents.

Boaters would contribute on the honor system by depositing the fees in lockboxes at the sites, Marx said.

Alternatively, boaters could purchase annual passes in the form of stickers for $40 each for residents and $80 for non-residents.

In a letter submitted for an Island County commissioners work session this past week, Marx suggested installing the system in the South End at Dave Mackie Park at Maxwelton Beach, Freeland Park and the Mutiny Bay boat launch.

Elsewhere in the county, the system could be installed at Monroe’s Landing, Hastie Lake and Utsalady Beach in the North End, and Maple Grove boat launch and Cavalro Beach Park on Camano Island, Marx said.

He said the fees in effect would be voluntary, since the county would have no way to enforce collection.

But he predicted that boaters would recognize the value of participating in the program.

“If we want to maintain our parks, it’s going to cost money,” he said.

Marx said the idea for the launch fees originated from residents of the Maple Grove area on Camano Island, where a number of non-residents, mostly from Snohomish County, use the boat ramp.

Marx said that money collected would go into a fund specifically to improve or replace the ramps, and not into the general parks budget.

He said replacing a boat ramp can cost thousands of dollars.

The concept is similar to that in place at state parks on the island, where a boat-launch fee of $7 is imposed.

The idea first surfaced early this past spring, as the county began to try to find ways to deal with a huge budget deficit. The county is still trying to close a $1.2 million gap.

Marx said last week that the current $204,000 parks budget is

57-percent lower than the previous year, and that the same amount is expected to be budgeted for next year.

He said he hopes to get cooperation for the launch-fee idea from the Port of South Whidbey, which owns the facilities on park property at the three South End locations.

Ed Field, port manager, said that the idea of boat-launch fees has been discussed through the years.

He said Marx’s suggestions will be on tonight’s port commission agenda. The meeting will be 7:30 p.m. at the Freeland Library.

“This will probably be one of many issues addressed when the new board of commissioners is in place in January,” Field said. “As of now, we have no position on it.”

But Field said the port endorses the concept of the boating public’s voluntary contribution to the upkeep of facilities, and said a box soon will be installed at the Langley Marina for donations.

Land at the marina was donated to Langley 35 years ago with the provision that boat-launch fees would never be charged. The port took over ownership of the marina from the city this year.

Meanwhile, Russ Ramsey of Langley, who for many years used South End boat-launch facilities as a member of Puget Sound Anglers, a fishing organization, said he supports the idea of fees.

“I would want to do my part,” he said. “Some of those boat access areas are hard to use in the winter because they haven’t been maintained.”

Bruce Barchenger, 67, of Freeland, another Puget Sound Anglers member, said he has put his 20-foot boat in the water at public launch areas about 50 times per year for the past seven years.

He said he would gladly pay $40 for an annual launch permit, so long as the ramps, which often become unusable because of the buildup of sand, are maintained.

“I believe in paying my share,” Barchenger said. “But if you just put in fees and don’t do a whole lot more than that, it will just anger people. A lot of people aren’t too happy as it is.”

Neal Sims of Langley, an avid trout fisherman, is skeptical of the proposal.

“If it’s an honor system, what’s the point of having an annual fee? It just doesn’t seem very well thought out to me,” he said.

“A donation box might generate more revenue and less ire, especially if there is a poster with an explanation of how the fees will be used,” he added.

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